With two recent public confrontations, a year-long, highly publicized drama in the world of Scientology has spilled into the streets of Clearwater.
The latest incident occurred Friday afternoon as seven members of the Church of Scientology - including five senior members of its California-based international management team - surrounded and screamed at a former church executive, then loudly carried the dispute into the office of an unsuspecting and startled doctor.
The former executive was Mike Rinder, 55, Scientology's longtime spokesman, whose accounts of violence and abuse at the church's highest levels have grabbed headlines. Three in the group were Rinder's family members: his estranged wife Cathy Rinder, his brother Andrew and daughter Taryn.
Mike Rinder says it was Scientology's attempt to intimidate him. Scientology says that it was a family matter, not a church matter, and that Rinder responded violently when approached by relatives he abandoned.
Rinder was standing near his car, chatting on his cell phone, he said, when he noticed all seven marching toward him, loudly chastising him and hurling profanities.
He said they took the keys from his ignition and tried to hold his car door closed as he struggled to get out. Three followed him into the office of Holly Johantgen, a doctor of oriental medicine who was treating Rinder's girlfriend with acupuncture.
Johantgen said the three pushed past her as she let Rinder into the office. She told them to leave and tried to close her office door but was ignored.
"You wouldn't have expected to hear these things coming out of their mouths," Johantgen said, noting that all seven were middle-aged and dressed in business attire. "It was just so aggressive, very much in-your-face, arms in the air, like 'F--- you' ... It was surreal. Unbelievable."
The Pinellas Sheriff's Office account of the incident released Tuesday said Rinder's relatives and church executive Sue Wilhere were given a warning that if they trespassed again, they could be charged.
Three of the international executives - David Bloomberg, Guillaume Lesevre and Jennifer Linson - left before deputies arrived.
Scientology spokesman Tommy Davis said that the executives were there as longtime friends and colleagues and that they left when Rinder indicated he wanted to talk to the family alone.
Cathy Rinder, he said, was attacked after trying to talk to the husband who abandoned her and their two children when he left the church in 2007.
"They were there to see him and his response was to assault Cathy. ... He shoved his daughter, and he assaulted Cathy and he broke his brother's finger. They show up to see him because he won't answer their communication, he won't answer their letters, and his response is to be violent.''
Rinder said he has no idea how Cathy Rinder was injured and denied shoving his daughter. He did pull back his brother's finger while they struggled over Rinder's car keys, but he didn't think it was broken.
Ten days earlier Rinder and three other defectors showed up at the church's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater, asking to see Rinder's son Ben, a church staffer.
One of the defectors was Marty Rathbun, a former high-ranking Scientology official and another vocal critic of church management.
Scientology security ordered them away, and Clearwater police issued trespass warnings.
A police report said the four were "loitering outside with videocameras" and had "attempted to push their way through the front door of the facility."
Said Davis: "It was a staged event. He (Rinder) showed up with a bully (Rathbun), a person with a camera ... and tried to force his way in. Is that the behavior of somebody who cares about his son?''
Both confrontations illustrate the extent to which Rinder and Rathbun have riled Scientology's management since they began to speak out early last year.
Their accounts of an abusive environment under Scientology leader David Miscavige, first reported by the St. Petersburg Times last June, emboldened other defectors to step forward with similar accounts, all denied by the church. The New York Times, ABC's Nightline, NBC's Today and CNN's Anderson Cooper all picked up the story.
Whistleblowers at first, Rinder and Rathbun morphed into crusaders for reform. They meet with other defectors to discuss media coverage, devise strategy and carry their message online via a blog run by Rathbun.
Rinder recently relocated to Tarpon Springs, where he shares a house with five other church defectors.
On Friday, his estranged wife told deputies that she and others were driving around near the doctor's office and by coincidence happened to see Rinder. But based on interviews with others in the group, the deputy determined they followed Rinder and intended to confront him.
At least in part, the dueling confrontations are an effort by both sides to claim moral authority on the church's "disconnection" practice.
The church says members can voluntarily cease communicating with family members and friends who have been declared enemies of Scientology, known as "suppressive persons" or SPs.
But many Scientologists say the church enforces the practice by pressuring people to disconnect from friends and loved ones.
Rinder says his family has been instructed not to speak to him without church supervision. To prove the point, he visited the Fort Harrison Hotel in search of his son and was sent away.
But on Friday, his family members indicated to deputies that it's Rinder - not them - who won't communicate.
Rinder says in a blog post on Rathbun's website that Miscavige masterminded Friday's confrontation to try to intimidate him. He says church-hired private investigators follow him constantly.
"I don't give a damn," Rinder said Tuesday. "I'm not doing anything wrong. I'm not doing anything illegal. ... If they want to spend huge amounts of money to hire a bunch of full-time people to follow me, go for it."
Johantgen said she was treating Rinder's girlfriend, Christie Collbran, shortly after noon when they heard loud voices from the front of the office. Someone was saying Collbran's name.
It was Rinder, who had come inside to call police after the group took his keys. According to Rinder, the group yelled: "You are a f------ SP."
"You are hurting your family."
"You are killing your mother."
Johantgen said she had no idea who Rinder was and was startled to see seven or eight people outside her door, all shouting.
"And I just yelled and very sternly spoke to them and said, 'You need to leave right now. I don't know who you are.'" She said she pushed them all outside and struggled to pull the door shut.
She hurried back to Collbran, who explained the situation and asked that Rinder be allowed inside. "She's got needles in her," the doctor said. "I'm doing acupuncture. She can't move."
When Johantgen opened the door to let Rinder in, Cathy Rinder pushed past her saying, "I'm his wife." Taryn Rinder did the same, saying, "I'm his daughter."
Johantgen said she told them to leave. At that point Cathy Rinder said, "You have my blood on you."
Johantgen looked down and saw blood on her hand from Cathy Rinder's arm. "And (she ) starts screaming, 'My husband did this to me.' She keeps getting up in my face, screaming at me."
According to Davis, Rinder grabbed his estranged wife "by both of her arms and what she said is that he was squeezing her arm so hard, she thought he was going to break it. In doing so, he essentially tore a sheet of skin off her arm.''
Sheriff's Deputy Kurt Frazho concluded that an abrasion on Cathy Rinder's arm was the result of "incidental contact" when her estranged husband "was trying to move away from the group."
Paramedics treated Cathy Rinder. No charges were filed. Johantgen, who called deputies, said the Scientologists' behavior changed in front of law enforcement.
"They were all so nice: 'Yes ma'am. We totally understand. Of course. No problem' - after they were going to rip my head off."
Mike Rinder said he and his younger brother spoke civilly after things settled down. He said Andrew asked for his number so the two could have dinner sometime, but only if the church would grant permission.
Times staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Joe Childs can be reached at email@example.com. Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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